One of the most common questions many have after using their kit lens for a while seems to be, “Which lens is best for portraits?” On full-frame bodies, I think the most appealing head-and-shoulders portraits are produced by lenses with focal lengths ranging between 135mm-200mm (the shot above was taken with a Sigma 150mm f/2.8 OS lens on a Nikon D800E full-frame body). Although I’ve shot a lot of portraits with an 85mm lens on a full-frame body (an ‘FX’ body in Nikon terms), the majority of subjects will benefit from the added amount of compression achieved by using a longer lens.
Note that in head-and-shoulders portraits, longer lenses tend to make the face appear more slender; however, this isn’t necessarily true for full-length shots.
Now, if shooting on a crop-frame body (‘DX’ in Nikon terms), simply multiply the lens’ focal length by 1.5 to get the “full-frame equivalent” (if you’re familiar with 35mm film focal lengths, you’ll be more familiar with full-frame numbers than their cropped-frame counterparts). For example, on a Nikon DX body, or a Canon crop-frame body, an 85mm lens has the same angle-of-view as a 127.5mm lens would on a full-frame body. So for crop-frame body owners (e.g., Nikon D3300, D5300, Canon Rebel Ti-series, etc.), an 85mm is right in the sweet spot for portraits, and is a popular choice for those with crop-frame bodies. I’ll append this list in future updates, but below are a few of my favorite full-frame lenses for shooting head-and-shoulders portraits:
Sigma 150mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM APO macro: Nikon, Canon, Sony, and Sigma mounts available.
The Sigma 150mm f/2.8 OS macro is now my go-to portrait lens: It’s stabilized, has excellent compression, and is tack-sharp.
Although both the AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G VR I/II, and Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM are excellent portrait lenses, I personally think 70-200mm f/2.8 zooms are a bit long and heavy for handheld portraiture (of course, the f/4 versions of each are smaller and lighter). Believe me, after shooting handheld portraits for a few hours straight, you’ll quickly see the benefit of a shorter, lighter lens. Instead, I bought the Sigma 150mm f/2.8 OS ($1,099), which I now use for 100% of the headshots I shoot. Compared with my 105mm DC-Nikkor, the Sigma is a razor-sharp, high-contrast set of optics which produces more neutral color rendering than the DC lenses (my 105mm DC tends to be warmer, and lower in contrast, which is also part of its charm). Also, in addition to the Sigma’s pin-sharp optical performance, its macro design allows you to shoot ultra close-ups when needed for beauty, make-up shots, etc.
AF Nikkor 105mm/135mm DC-Nikkor f/2.0D:
Nikon has created a unique set of optics in the DC-Nikkor series . . .
If you own a Nikon DX body, I would recommend the AF Nikkor 105mm DC-Nikkor f/2.0D ($899), which has a full-frame equivalent focal length of 157.5mm, an excellent focal length for head-and-shoulders portraits.
If you own an FX body, I would recommend the AF Nikkor 135mm DC-Nikkor f/2.0D ($1,299). Personally, I bought the 105mm DC back when I only had DX bodies, and I still end up using it my FX bodies from time to time. The DC lenses produce a unique image, and with the DC ring in extreme positions, can produce some really nice effects (think 1970s Penthouse layouts). As I said, the 70-200mm and Sigma 150mm are both tack-sharp (with the 150mm being easier to hand-hold). The 135mm DC should provide just enough compression for most headshots on FX bodies, and be a bit easier to hand-hold as well.
Contrary to popular perception, the DC-Nikkors aren’t “soft-focus” lenses–they have a unique design which allows you to dial in spherical aberration, which tends to accentuate backlighting and highlights areas in particular.
My particular copy of the 105mm DC is actually sharpest at R = f/2, and not in the detent position. It’s also worth mentioning that the DC’s effect on bokeh, per se, is often misunderstood, and/or overestimated. When setting the R-value equal to the aperture being used, its effects are actually quite subtle. Note that some users have reported focusing issues with their DC lenses, and experiences can vary by body as well. I consider the DC lenses specialty lenses. For brass-tacks, get it shot, and get it sharp, I tend to trust other lenses more. That said, it’s a unique lens with a strong following among those who manage to shoot their copies in focus.
additional recommended Nikkor FX portrait-length lenses:
• AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G VR I/VR II
• AF Nikkor 180mm f/2.8D
• AF-S Nikkor 200mm f/2.0G IF-ED
additional recommended Nikkor DX portrait-length lenses:
• AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G
• AF-S Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G VR IF-ED
• AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G VR I/VR II